Notes on the History of Slavery: Slave Prices in Antiquity

The following is from Kyle Harper’s 2010 paper “Slave prices in antiquity (and in the very long term).”

Right off the bat, a very important disclaimer:

There is an obvious reason why the cliometric revolution can only make limited inroads into the ancient world: the paucity of data. The historian of U.S. slavery has over 100,000 slave prices; the historian of the Roman empire has a few dozen data points… It is important to make the best critical use of what we do have.

Let’s be honest: what really caught my attention about this paper is the possibility of comparing prices for different kind of people. Obviously, young and healthy slaves always and everywhere fetched a higher price than old and infirm; and the good-looking were more expensive than the bad-looking. But what other differences were there in antiquity? Well, location, for example:

Four attributes are of particular significance for the price of a slave: sex, age, skills, and location. Slaves, generally, increase rapidly in value into young adulthood and then decline again in old age. Skilled slaves fetch higher prices on the market, a reflection of their human capital. Location, too, matters. A slave on the coast of Africa sold for less than he or she would in New Orleans; a slave in interior Phrygia sold for less than he or she would in Ostia. What makes these variables such an acute worry for the ancient historian is that we often lack the relevant information about the slave’s sex, age, skills, location, etc.

Supply and demand… of free labor was also a key consideration:

The demand curve, and thus the price of slave labor, was also infl uenced by another consideration: the cost of free labor. Slaves and free workers could act as substitutes. To the extent that slaves and free workers occupied the same market, wages, rents, and slave prices were in competition. Thus the price of slaves could have been subject to Malthusian pressures: if population increase drove down wages or rents, the value of slave labor would decline because its substitutes were cheaper. Conversely, if the free population declined, driving up wages or rents (in the aftermath of a plague, for instance), then the price of a slave would have risen in response.

I love a reference to how the military mobilization of the Italian peasantry in the late republic created a “scarcity of labor” that in turn led to latifundia becoming slave operations that eventually out-competed free farmers, creating the conditions for rage and xenophobia that led to the rise of Donald Trump… I mean, Catiline during the early 1st century BC:

The transaction costs of hiring rural wage labor was a major factor in the demand for slave labor; in densely populated regions like Egypt, where wage labor was cheaply and dependably available, slavery did not infi ltrate agriculture.

Of course, Egyptian farmers weren’t leaving the land for a more exciting and wealthier life as legionnaires.

Harper’s most detailed data sets for prices and such come from the period between AD 300-600, the very last stretch of commonly-understood Antiquity, and one already coming into growing Christian sway. Let’s keep this in mind, since Christianity was, generally speaking, a powerful — if not persistent or even coherent — voice against slavery.

Number one surprise (to me): males were more expensive than females, except in the age bracket 8–16 years old, where their prices were equal (*). As Harper’s chastely puts it:

This pattern could certainly argue that there was a reproductive premium for adolescent female slaves.

OK then. There are weird scholarly cases too: take that of Serapion the Sindonite, a fourth-century ascetic who sold himself into slavery to a family of stage actors in a town in Egypt. He was sold for twenty solidi, about twice the price of a common slave-laborer.

Serapion may have been a Christian, taking part in a virtue-signalling contest. John the Eleemosynary sold himself into slavery and fetched 50 solidi on the market; Harper comments: “The figure appears intended to inflate the saint’s generosity.”

Actually, Augustine of Hippo once claimed that a horse was often more expensive than a slave. In fact…

After the defeat of Radagaisus and his invading army in AD 406, the defeated Goths were sold for one solidus apiece, like cheap cattle. This fi gure is not necessarily to be believed. It is reported second-hand by Orosius (“it was said that…”), who also estimated that the invading force numbered 200,000 men. In fact it was closer to 20,000, according to Heather. Orosius was trying to emphasize the size of the defeated force by the low price charged for the captives. If the values are incredible, the underlying logic of the observation – that a sudden shift upward in supply would send prices rapidly lower – is eminently plausible.

Speaking of Christians:

Melania the Younger and her husband Pinian were wealthy members of the Roman senate. When they converted to the ascetic lifestyle, they decided to liquidate their massive property. Other branches of the family opposed their desire to dissipate the patrimony, and the brother of Pinian was even accused of fomenting a slave rebellion. The emperor Honorius was forced to intervene and seems to have crafted a compromise. According to Palladius, Melania freed 8,000 slaves and transferred the rest to Pinian’s brother at 3 solidi each. This seems to be a compromise forged by the emperor by which the brother kept some of the patrimony at a favorable price; it does not represent the prevailing market value of slaves.

In the mid 5th century, strict legal limits about the sale of slaves went out the window:

A famine had ravaged Italy, forcing freeborn citizens to sell their children or elderly parents into slavery. In classical Roman law, this was strictly illegal, but the late antique state took a more pragmatic view of such messy social realities.

The only named reference to the sale of a black slave in the paper is this: a papyrus that records the sale of a 12 year-old black male slave, Nepheros, at Hermopolis,
sometime during the reign of Anastasius (the reference is F. Hoogendijk, “Byzantinischer Sklavenkauf”, Archiv für Papyrusforschung 42 (1996) 225–34.). The price was low: eight solidi.

Still, there is considerable evidence that the flow of slaves from Nubia and east Africa towards the Mediterranean was already substantial in late Antiquity.

Nepheros probably was unskilled. Note that this table from roughly the same era has reference prices for various slaves, all of which are at least twice that of Nepheros (also note: there’s no different price for women):


Obviously, many of the young women were bought for sex trafficking. It would have been nice to know whether women from different regions fetched different prices, keeping in mind that such was the case when ISIS had slave markets during its brief heyday in 2015-17 AD.

Under Justinian, his wife Theodora is reported to have gathered the procurers of the city and interrogated them under oath. They swore that they had procured young females for 5 solidi each, a pretty low price. The empress reimbursed them and released the girls — something that no ISIS first lady would have even considered possible, or desirable.

This unrelated table is pretty cool:


*Harper cites M. A. Dandamaev’s “Slavery in Babylonia: from Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626–331 BC)” (DeKalb 1984), in which the author 186–206 reports a scatter of first millennium BC prices from Babylonia and concludes that males cost slightly more than females. In the Early Middle Ages (ca. 700–1000) females appear more expensive, Harper adds later.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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